Most weekends find me at the Montgomery County Animal Shelter, walking dogs and taking pictures of them to help get them adopted. For years, I have worked rescue in various capacities, and I have taken a close look at a wide variety of different animal charities and volunteer groups.
Here’s what I’ve learned. In every group, some volunteers are wonderful, helpful, and hard-working. Some are more trouble than they’re worth.
The volunteers in the first category are the ones who literally make it possible to save more animals. The ones in the second category are the ones who make it harder for the good ones to do their job.
Good volunteers can do an incredible variety of things to help. Animals shelters and rescues always need people to do the following:
- Foster pets waiting for adoption.
- Walk dogs.
- Take photographs for online adoption profiles.
- Bathe and groom dogs.
- Clean runs and cages.
- Wash towels and bedding.
- Solicit donations and do fundraisers.
- Run adoption events.
- Do publicity.
- Donate food, money, towels, bedding.
What makes a good volunteer? A good volunteer learns the parameters and protocols of the organization and works within them. A good volunteer always fulfills his or her commitments; if you say you’ll run an event or do a time-sensitive job, make sure it happens. Lives literally depend on you. A good volunteer learns to handle animals properly so that neither people nor animals are put at risk. It is not helpful for animals to get loose and run through a shelter. It can actually be dangerous, when you think of how many people off the street walk through a shelter, and how many animals from unknown backgrounds are all in one place.
A good volunteer sees what needs doing and finds a way to help without getting in the way of others doing their jobs. If there are already more people than space walking dogs, then go do laundry or bathe dogs. There is always something productive to be done in the shelter.
One thing that every good volunteer needs to realize is that animal welfare people often have better skills with animals than with people. That means you may find yourself working beside people with loud, overtly expressed opinions, or with poor conversational skills, or who are just plain annoying. Keep an open mind (easier said than done) and remind yourself what you have in common: the need to help animals.
Now let me say what everyone tries to avoid saying. Here’s what NOT to do.
Don’t get in the way. If, for example, someone is trying wrestle two uncooperative eighty pound dogs down the hall, that would not be the moment to walk a 5 pound chihuahua past them on a loose leash. You could provoke a fight, endanger the little dog, and jeopardize the big dogs’ adoptability status. It could even cause a volunteer to get bitten.
Remember that the shelter is not a daycare. I was horrified recently when a new volunteer showed up with a very small child and allowed the kid to run unsupervised through the shelter. We all realized what was happening when several loose dogs showed up in the lobby. The kid was opening cages. The adult? No idea where she was. After we solved that problem, I later found the adult allowing the little kid to walk a dog he couldn’t handle – right in front of the sign that said all dog walkers had to be at least sixteen. We also had someone come in to be a volunteer, but then she told the shelter that she would have to bring her new infant to the shelter with her. Nope!
Don’t do stupid things with animals (like the aforementioned). Last weekend, I saw a volunteer tie a small dog to a fence with a slip leash. The little guy was panicking and about to strangle himself. Why did she do this? Because she and her daughters had brought out more animals than they could comfortably walk and decided to leave that one tied to a fence while they walked the others. It was dangerous, careless, and wrong. The little dog could have hurt himself or gotten loose. The dogs running loose on the other side of the fence could have tried to attack him through the fence. The volunteer was more concerned about accomodating her daughters than taking care of the dogs.
Don’t come in to the shelter and announce that we’re doing everything wrong. Don’t show up and tell us that if we really cared about the animals, we would instantly become no kill. Don’t assume that we don’t know what we’re doing. Unbelievably, I have seen perfect strangers do these things. And yet the people who are in that shelter day after day, who rehabilitate the damaged, who stay up nights with the sick and injured know more and care more than anyone off the street can possibly know.
Please, be a good volunteer. And bring your friends to do likewise. We deeply appreciate our good volunteers, we need you, we save lives because of you.
Not sure how to help? Just ask!